The Izu Exile

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

This Dharma talk was given in May 2003, on the occasion of the commemoration of Nichiren's exile to Izu peninsula.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, Ryuei

Izu Exile and Mother’s Day 5/10/03

Today, being mother’s day and a day before the anniversary of the Izu Exile, I’d like to share some thoughts about a letter attributed to Nichiren which is discusses both of these things. The letter is called the Funamori Yasaburo moto gosho and also The Izu Exile. It is not listed in any of the indices of Nichiren’s writings prior to the Rokuge or Outside Collection of the 16th century and it also contains teachings which are considered to be inspired by Original Enlightenment thought which is now looked upon as something that Nichiren himself may not have endorsed if he did not in fact write this and other gosho which have not been authenticated. However, neither is there proof that he did not write them, nor does Nichiren ever condemn Original Enlightenment thought in his authenticated works, and finally this gosho is the single literary source for a legend about Nichiren’s life that is often depicted in stories and art.

                      What is known for sure is that on May 12, 1261 Nichiren was arrested by the Kamakuran authorities for disturbing the peace, probably at the instigation of Pure Land priests and laity who were upset at Nichiren’s critique of Honen, and also government officials who may have been disturbed at the subtext of Nichiren’s critiques which questioned the legitimacy of the military government. Nichiren was sentenced to be banished to the village of Ito on the Izu peninsula where it was expected that he would starve to death in the wilderness since people were forbidden to provide food or shelter for exiles like Nichiren. Nichiren was taken there by boat and according to legend, whether out of laziness or malice, the samurai guards abandoned him on the Mana-ita (or “Butcher’s Block”) Reef where he would drown as the tide rose. At that point, Nichiren began to chant the Odaimoku as he bravely met his doom, but an old fisherman named Yasaburo heard him as he was heading back to shore. Yasaburo picked Nichiren up in his boat and took him back with him where he and his wife offered to let Nichiren stay with them. Nichiren refused for the sake of their safety but they still helped him to find a cave for shelter and proceeded to provide him with food in the coming months until Nichiren’s fortunes changed and he sought out by retainers of the Lord of Ito who believed Nichiren could heal their sick lord. Nichiren succeeded and the grateful lord not only made sure that Nichiren was provided for until his pardon, but he even presented him with a statue of the Buddha which had been fished out of the sea. This statue was supposedly the very one that Nichiren carried with him throughout his life. Dr. Jackie Stone mentions that all of these legends about Yasaburo and his wife and the bestowal of the Buddha’s statue that came from the sea have this gosho as their only source. It is nevertheless a wonderful story of the kindness of strangers, the healing power of faith, and the mysterious and suggestive origins of Nichiren’s statue of Shakyamuni Buddha.


                      At this point it is obvious why the gosho is related to any commemoration of the Izu Exile, but if you have not read it you may be wondering what it has to do with Mother’s Day. The following passage from the gosho should make this clear:

                      "When, on the twelfth day of the fifth month, having been exiled, I arrived at that harbor I had never even heard of before, and when I was still suffering after leaving the boat, you kindly took me into your care. What karma has brought us together? Can it be that, because in the past you were a votary of the Lotus Sutra, now, in the Latter Day of the Law, you have been reborn as Funamori no Yasaburo and have taken pity on me? Though a man may do this, for your wife, as a married woman, to have given me food, brought me water to wash my hands and feet with, and treated me with great concern, I can only call wondrous.

                       What caused you to inwardly believe in the Lotus Sutra and make offerings to me during my more than thirty-day stay there? I was hated and resented by the steward and the people of the district even more than I was in Kamakura. Those who saw me scowled, while those who merely heard my name were filled with spite. And yet, though I was there in the fifth month when rice was scarce, you secretly fed me. Have my parent’s been reborn in a place called Kawana, in Ito of Izu Province?" (p. 35, WND)


                      One of the things about Nichiren, which has always struck me, is his gratitude and the great importance that he places on acts of kindness shown to him. His personal letters, including this one, almost always include an enumeration of the offerings that he received and his expressions of gratitude. And every so often, as here, he compares his benefactors to his own parents and asks if they are in fact his parents reborn. He does not mean this literally. At the time he wrote this letter his mother was in fact still alive. There is a belief in Buddhism that when one considers the innumerable lifetimes we may have all shared together we have all probably been a mother and a father to each other. The point of this teaching is that we should therefore treat each other accordingly and show the same respect and gratitude towards others that we would hopefully show to our own parents. Nichiren may have been thinking of this, but I also believe that he really considered the kindness and support shown by his disciples and sometimes even by strangers, at the risk of their lives in some cases, to be on the level of the great sacrifices that parent’s make for their own children. In addition, Nichiren realized that in many ways he was in the position of a child unable to fend for himself during his exiles, and that he truly would be unable to survive without the kindness and support of others. He depended on them in the way that a baby depends on its mother for warmth, nourishment, and protection. So I think that for Nichiren this was not simply an allusion to the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth, but a heartfelt expression of appreciation and gratitude.

                       Nichiren goes even further and compares the Buddha fished out of the ocean with all of us who founder within “the sea of the sufferings of birth and death since time without beginning” but who are really buddhas at heart  who do not realize it until they become practitioners of the Lotus Sutra. Nichiren then refers to several sutras and jataka stories wherein miraculous transformations occur - a demon becomes Indra, a dove becomes a god and so on. This culminates in the assertion that “An ordinary person is a Buddha, and a Buddha, an ordinary person. This is what is meant by three thousand realms in a single moment of life and by the phrase, ‘I in fact attained Buddhahood.’” (p. 36, WND) These same assertions are made in the Kanjin Honzon Sho where Nichiren insists that the doctrine of the three thousand realms in a single moment of thought means that the world of the buddha and thus buddhahood exists within each of us and that Shakyamuni Buddha is our own flesh and blood and his practices and virtues are our bones and marrow. In light of the Kanjin Honzon Sho I find the statements in the Izu Exile gosho to be very consistent with Nichiren’s convictions, especially since the passage also asserts that it is only the votaries of the Lotus Sutra who are able to recognize this while otherwise ordinary people are blind to this and that it is beyond their understanding. So it is through faith in the Lotus Sutra that one is able to realize the truth. This gift of faith is what Nichiren wishes to convey to Yasaburo and is wife out of gratitude. And he concludes his letter with the assertion that the parental kindness shown to him by Yasaburo and his wife are in fact the actions of the Buddha himself: “In that case, perhaps the World Honored One of Great Enlightenment, the lord of teachings, has been reborn and has helped me as you and your wife.” (p. 36, WND)

                       So I’ll conclude by acknowledging that this gosho may or may not be an actual writing of Nichiren. The legend of Yasaburo and his rescue of Nichiren may or may not be based on fact. But I find the story and this gosho remarkably consistent with Nichiren’s main teachings and also very inspiring in their own right. The view of the writer of this letter is that the kindness and caring one hopes to find in a loving family can in fact be extended to all people, even strangers, and that should never be taken for granted and should even be looked upon as the workings of the Eternal Buddha in our daily lives. That is a vision that I would like to keep in mind for this Mother’s Day and in fact everyday.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick 2004.

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